The key role of the ISA is to develop a set of rules and procedures to regulate prospecting, exploration, and exploitation of minerals in the deep seabed.
While sessions of the Assembly tend to be largely procedural, countries did address exploitation-related issues raised under “other matters”.
The 27th session of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) Assembly elected 18 ISA Council members for 2023-2026. Together with the Legal and Technical Commission, the Council is one of ISA’s main bodies conducting the negotiations on the draft exploitation regulations. While the Assembly is less involved in the talks, the issue underpinned many of the discussions.
The key role of the ISA is to develop a set of rules and procedures to regulate prospecting, exploration, and exploitation of minerals in the Area – “the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” In accordance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Area and its resources are the common heritage of humankind.
The deep seabed is rich in minerals. The Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) summary report of the meeting notes that polymetallic nodules were first detected on the deep seabed by the HMS Challenger expedition in 1873. Distributed on the surface or half-buried across the seabed, mainly in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, they contain nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese, among other metals. Other minerals that have since been discovered in the Area include cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts, which are mineral accumulations on seamounts containing cobalt, nickel, copper, molybdenum, and rare earth elements. Polymetallic sulphides, formed through chemical reactions around hydrothermal vent sites, have also been found. They contain copper, zinc, lead, silver, and gold.
While, as the ENB analysis of the meeting notes, sessions of the Assembly tend to be largely procedural, countries did address exploitation-related issues. One such discussion concerned a proposal by Chile to consider “triggering of the two-year timeline,” which refers to a provision in the 1994 Agreement relating to the implementation of UNCLOS Part XI (the Area). According to the provision, if the Council has not finished elaborating the rules, regulations, and procedures relating to exploitation within two years following a request from a state who intends to apply for approval of a plan of work for exploitation, the Council “shall nonetheless consider and provisionally approve such plan of work based on the provisions of the Convention and any rules, regulations, and procedures that the Council may have adopted provisionally, or on the basis of the norms contained in the Convention and the terms and principles contained in this Annex as well as the principle of non-discrimination among contractors.”
On 25 June 2021, Nauru submitted such a request. The “Mining Code” may not be adopted by the end of the two-year timeline (25 June 2023), and “many Member States share concerns about the two-year timeline and want to debate its legal implications.” During the ISA Assembly 27th session, for example, delegates suggested seeking an advisory opinion from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), called for a pause in the negotiations in line with the precautionary approach to ensure scientific, legal, and socioeconomic uncertainties can be addressed first, and highlighted need for further alignment with other ocean-related processes.
The 27th session of the ISA Assembly also, inter alia:
- elected 15 members for the Finance Committee for 2023-2026;
- addressed the annual report of the Secretary-General and the wealth of activities in the period 2021-2022 to deliver against the nine strategic directions and associated relevant high-level actions of the ISA Strategic Plan and High-Level Action Plan for 2019-2023, as well as the capacity development strategy;
- received updates on the work of the Council;
- approved five requests for observer status; and
- discussed financial and budgetary matters, including adopting the budget for the financial period 2023-2024.
The next meeting of the ISA Council is scheduled to convene from 31 October to 11 November 2022 in Kingston, Jamaica. The 28th session of the ISA Assembly will take place from 24-28 July 2023. [ENB Coverage of ISA Assembly 27th Session]